First fusarium-resistant spring wheat in pipeline

Launching two new Canadian Prairie Spring red (CPS) wheats, including the first fusarium head blight-resistant spring wheat bred for western Canadian farmers, is a great way to cap a 40-year-long career in planting breeding, says Doug Brown.

Ten years in the making, HY1615, which is resistant to the yield-crippling fusarium, and HY1610, which is 10 per cent higher yielding than other CPS wheats, were both recommended for registration by the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT) at its annual meeting Feb. 28.

“I’m just thrilled,” Brown said in an interview March 22. “These varieties offer a lot of potential. I hope farmers get some real value from them.”

But as pleased as the AAFC cereal breeder was to see his varieties get the nod, he also unabashedly admits he almost let what is now seen as a fusarium resistance breakthrough slip through his fingers.

“My emphasis through the breeding program, whether it was oats or wheat, was yield. It had to have decent quality, decent agronomics and decent disease resistance, but I was always looking for yield,” he said.

HY1615 wouldn’t have made the cut if it weren’t for the eagle eyes of his co-worker technician Mary Meiklejohn.

“I might have thrown it out if it hadn’t have been for one of the technicians who is part of the wheat-breeding team. She said, ‘look at its fusarium resistance.’ She had a good eye for that.”

But Brown said it simply reinforces the reality that plant breeders need a good team around them. “We are a breeding team here, it’s not just me,” he said.

“I inherited some very good people,” he said, noting Meiklejohn had previously worked for his predecessor and mentor Ron McKenzie.

Both of Brown’s varieties — HY1615 and HY1610 — are resistant to the orange blossom wheat midge and Ug99, a new race of stem rust, which originated in Uganda. They could be available commercially to farmers by 2016.

“I can’t emphasize enough that this line (HY1615) is the first spring line to be resistant to FHB,” said AAFC oat breeder Jennifer Mitchell-Fetch speaking on behalf of Brown during the PRCWRT meeting. “It’s got good yield, it’s got a good agronomic package and disease package and midge resistance. I think it’s a good one.”

HY1615, which is adapted to eastern Prairies, yielded 12 per cent more than the check 5700PR in three years of co-op testing, Patti Rothenburger, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives’ agri-genetics specialist said in an email.

HY1610 yielded 10 to 34 per cent more than the checks, Mitchell-Fetch told the committee. It has intermediate resistance to fusarium.

Brown was on his way to becoming a chemistry teacher when he first took a job in 1973 as assistant oat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to get some work experience.

“But you know one year led to another and another and another. It was really satisfying work,” Brown said.

He particularly enjoyed working with McKenzie. “He was a very good teacher and mentor and we clicked. It was kind of hard to leave because it was just so satisfying. So I stayed around.”

Brown took over the CPS breeding program when McKenzie retired in 1995.

As a class, CPS has had its ups and downs over the years and currently only accounts for two to three per cent of the wheat acres in Western Canada. Its future as part of AAFC’s breeding program is now is in limbo.

Brown has been working under contract with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Cereal Research Centre since he officially retired 2011. That contract ended March 31. Brown’s position had been cut as part of the federal government’s decision to close the Cereal Research Centre.

But after floundering in search of a marketing niche for years, CPS wheats have recently surged in popularity among farmers and processors, increasing demand for varieties that fit its quality parameters.

Stephen Morgan Jones, director general, Prairie/Boreal Plain Ecozone, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said AAFC is reconsidering due to the renewed interest in the CPS class.

AAFC will make a decision by year’s end on the position, but if it does continue to develop varieties, the breeder position will be based in Brandon, Morgan Jones said.

IF AAFC doesn’t continue with CPS there are alternatives, including the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre and Syngenta. Also sometimes CPS wheats come out of the CWRS breeding program, Morgan Jones said.

There was another first at this year’s recommending committee meeting — the approval of a feed variety developed by a farmer’s co-op. See page 17.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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